Our arrival was a non-event in the history of the town. Even though our family connections there spanned centuries and generations, the casual observer would detect nothing to link us to this place, this space, this particularly beautiful location in the Polish countryside. As with most of our fellow Jews, our tenuous relationship with this spot now exists only in books. No survivors remain to tell us their personal stories. The many descendants of those who called it home never lived there at all. People like us.
There were no family members awaiting us when we visited Augustow, Poland, a place that had been home to our kin. But, now, our visit was reduced to a fruitless search for family names in the local Jewish cemetery. We found none. Those prescient enough to have left in the early 20th century had progeny who were already well established in places like the United States and Israel. The rest were murdered by Hitler.
To prepare for our visit I had gone to the world renowned library at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the JTSA. There I found the Augustow Memorial Book, a large volume in Hebrew with the stories and pictures of life in Augustow before World War II. The town had been a vibrant place for its Jews. Many, like our family, were squarely middle-class, living lives of culture, sports, clubs, religious tradition, and political expression. They had decent educational and professional opportunities. My relatives had no plans to relocate.
Thus, when Pop, my grandfather Yitzchak Bauman, already married to Peshka and father to two little boys named Duvid and Chaim, was unexpectedly drafted into the Polish army, it was deemed urgent that they leave immediately. Pop had no intention of spending the rest of his life as a soldier for Poland.
The young family was on the move. They would leave the lovely scenic resort town on the Netta River with its Augustow Canal, and arrive at the cacophony that was Williamsburg’s Maujer Street, to live in an unheated cold water flat.
Pop hurriedly preceded Peshka. She followed as soon as she could gather their belongings and embark on a trip with no return. How painful it had to be for her to leave her parents and siblings. What suffering for those family members who stayed behind to know they would not likely see their loved ones again. And these little boys would grow up without the indulgences of grandparents, aunts and uncles. Yet, like so many other Jewish families of their generation, they did what they had to do. And, in the end, these little boys and their parents were serendipitously spared the ultimate horrors to come!
Peshka had to hastily organize for the enormous trip across the ocean with the children. These became my uncles Dave and Charlie. No doubt she packed as much clothing and household paraphernalia as was allowed. Today, one item remains until this very moment. It is not Peshka or Pop or the two boys. It is not even Ida, my mother, who was born an American in New York City. After being passed from generation to generation, Peshka’s fleishig (meat) soup ladle is the lone survivor.
I would not have thought that she would have attached so much importance to an item that could be easily and inexpensively replicated in America, and that I know to be rather heavy. Yet, she did. Perhaps there was some emotional heft to it. Perhaps it was a gift from someone she treasured. Or, probably, it was because it is a beautiful piece and she admired it. And so it traveled with them in the ship’s baggage compartment, near the packed steerage passenger section, with its smells of human waste, sweat, its rats, lice, and disease. The journey was torturous. The air was foul. One cannot fathom how impossible it was to be accompanied by very young children. Yet, they arrived at the goldena medina, and the famous statue in its harbor, all intact.
And, remarkably, well over a century later, that ladle continues to serve soup.
Peshka’s ladle is not made of a precious material at all, neither silver, gold, nor platinum. It is, however, delicate, with its subtle engraved cuts of die cast metal. One could purchase a similar ladle today for under $30. But this ladle is special. This ladle is a survivor. Born and crafted in Poland it now doles out soup in Jerusalem, after a lengthy sojourn in New York and then New Jersey, and several years in the Israeli coastal city of Herzliya. How many ladles share such stories of Jewish living and resilience? How many ladles have been dipped in so many extraordinary soups made of chicken, beets, flanken, split peas, cabbage, onions, and numerous other tasty ingredients, spiced with salt, pepper and endless love! This ladle is a keeper. It is virtually unharmed from all its travels and remains in perfect condition, ready for a continuing relationship with our family and our soup. If only ladles could speak, what stories it would tell.
The ladle arrived on the Lower East Side from where Peshka, an extraordinary cook, went on to become a hotel owner, where she was the primary, and only, chef. I am sorry that I was never privileged to taste her soup. My mother, no slouch herself, described the soups to me as perfection in a pot. Peshka used the ladle often. A great soup was a tasty guest pleaser and an inexpensive addition to a hotel meal. Soups fill the belly, heal the soul, and cost a pittance. When you are feeding multiple people, soups are a reliable source of enjoyment without breaking the bank. The ladle was put to work daily. It never disappointed.
In the beginning of their American lives, Peshka helped to support her family by renting boarding houses each summer. Then she would sublease to a loyal group of clients who loved her cooking and their summers at New York tourist destinations like High Falls, and Rockaway Beach. It was a summer at Rockaway where disaster struck. A fire spread through the little boarding house, destroying everything in its path. None of the tenants was injured but the season’s income was totally lost. Peshka returned to the city with one surviving item, the ladle. Absolutely everything else, representing an enormous investment for the new immigrants, was destroyed.
Seemingly undaunted, Pop and Peshka’s next venture was to borrow enough money to buy the Westin House Hotel in Parksville, New York. This remained in the family for over six decades. It proudly bore its new iteration as The Bauman House, whose first mission was to earn enough money to send Charlie to NYU Dental School. When he earned his DDS degree, Peshka continued her intense labors at the hotel until she could do no more. She died young, aged 62. My mother always said her mother had worked herself to death. Her legacy, however, remained, as my own generation grew up loving forever, our now gone, but never forgotten, summers in Parksville.
The next owner of the ladle was my mother, a tireless and talented soup maker. She excelled at every variety, and her soups, especially her chicken with matzah balls, were legendary. I remember living in Newark where there was always a delicious pot of soup simmering on the stove, welcoming me home. I myself have never reached that degree of excellence in my attempts to master soupery! That is probably why the ladle skipped a generation and I never became its owner.
When my parents moved to Herzliya, Israel, in their old age, my 73 year old mother still loved to make soup for her 80 year old husband. It had to be hot for him. That was his only complaint ever. The taste was always remarkably delicious! The Israeli chickens were more flavorful than their American cousins. Today, when you enter an Israeli apartment building on Friday mornings, the fragrance of chicken soup spreads through the halls like a love-note from the Shabbat Queen herself. Lecha dodi. It is Divine.
Our daughter Amy became the next owner of the ladle. It moved across the ocean to South Orange where Amy and Mark raised their five sons with lots of delicious soup. I always enjoyed seeing the ladle in its new home. We never discussed its roots but the soup was always extraordinary. And then, they took it on its most recent move, to their pied a terre in Arnona, Jerusalem, a return to a home in the Holy Land. Once again the soups taste better in Israel. An extraordinary soup coupled with the Israeli ambience is the perfect combination.
Peshka would have been delighted to know that her beloved ladle had reached its destination.